When The Turf is Thy Tower

I was planning on writing about Dorothy L. Sayers, probably Murder Must Advertise, but I felt the fact that I didn’t have the book with me to be a compelling factor in leaving it to another day. So, I resolved to write about poetry, as that is almost always easily accessible online. Yet what poem? As I inspired myself with the poem from the reign of Henry VIII, I decided to be daring and go further back, to a short Middle English poem. And so, I chose this wonderful poem, ‘When the Turf is Thy Tower,’ by an anonymous poet, believed to have been written at some point in the 13th century. This is rather exciting for me, and I should hope it is also for you!

Before I give the poem, I must say: don’t despair if it looks unreadable! I’ll put the unfamiliar words. As for pronunciation, just say it how it looks to you; you’ll get it. One note, however: the ‘-our’ at the end of tour and bour, are pronounced like the end of ‘hour,’ or, indeed, simply as ‘our.’


So, the poem in the Middle English:


Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitë throtë
Shullen wormës to notë.
What helpëth thee thennë
Al the worildë wennë?
Read it? Good. Now for a few words
turuf – turf; tour – tower; bour – bower; fel – skin; throte – throat; shullen – shall [be]; to note – to eat; wenne – either hope or pleasure. The line ‘shullen wormes to note’ is hard to make out, as the grammar isn’t as close to modern English, but, literally it’s along the lines of ‘shall be (for) worms to eat.’
So, a modern translation would read (and no, I didn’t write it. I stole it off the internet)
When the turf is thy tower,
And thy pit is thy bower,
Thy skin and thy white throat
Shall be food for worms.
What help to you then
(Is) all the worldly hope?
Yes, it’s the tower from Tangled… It was the first image that came to mind!
I hope the Middle English isn’t too hard to read; some of it is tricky (shullen wormes to note), but, the more you read, the easier it gets. And the Middle English Dictionary helps too!
Anyway, as to the poem. It’s lovely, short poem, and covers one of my favourite subjects of poem: the shortness of life, and the inevitable end, followed by a reminder of what the world shall be for you. I can’t really say why, exactly, such poems appeal to me; I think it might come from reading On the Shortness of Life when I was at a young, rather impressionable age. The rhyme goes AABBCC  (one has to pronounce all of those little ‘e’s at the end), and divides the poem up nicely into its separate sections. I am jealous of the author, that he could create such a simple and pleasurable masterpiece with only six lines. The poem describes succinctly the use of the worldly things; the difficulty, of course, is that wenne can mean either hope, expectation, or pleasure and enjoyment. On the one hand, then, the poem is a sombre reminder of how all must to ashes turn, and that all this is little recompense when one is food for worms. And on the other hand, if one takes it to mean pleasure, then the poem reminds one not to cling to long to wealth, health, or other such things, for it is all passing.
I can’t, of course, comment accurately on exactly what the poet meant, as I don’t speak Middle English, with all its nuances. However, from a purely literary point of view, I would propose that both separate words (as they indeed are, though often spelt similarly) were current at the poem’s conception, and thus that the poet intended the ambiguity. If so, then the poem is even stronger, exhorting one of the emptiness of both hope and pleasure in the world. All in all, a rather fantastic poem, especially for its six little lines.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this poem. I have always found great pleasure in discovering such old English literature, especially when one realises how (generally) easy it is to read! I quite enjoy struggling through Middle English at times, and, with luck, this brief foray will inspire the Dear Reader also to engage in such an activity.

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